Thursday, 17 September 2020

We should sort out the pipework of democracy - scrutiny and accountability - before we reorganise local government






Back in the young days of the Blair Ascendency there was this urgent desire to replace all the fuddy-duddy institutions with new, bright and shiny, modern replacements. The Blair government, triumphant in its massive majority, wanted to emulate the previous time when a Labour government was swept to power on a radical manifesto to change the nation. Government would be transformed at every level with devolution to the Scots and Welsh, the conclusion of the Northern Ireland process begun by John Major, the reform of the House of Lords, and having parliament meet in the day time. Old fashioned things like having a Lord Chancellor and having the courts (and local councils) oversee the process of elections were to go, replaced by a prosaic Minister of Justice, a disturbingly American sound Supreme Court and an unaccountable Electoral Commission.

For local councils the intention was clear, Blair's aim was straight from the Redcliffe-Maud and Michael Heseltine school - elected mayors for councils, reorganisation to clear out those silly districts, and a new tier of grand (and strategic) regional government. Like so much about the Blair Revolution, the local government reforms ended up as a fudge and a compromise - local councillors hated the proposals and back then Labour ran a lot of places that they'd never run before. Local councils were given a choice about whether to have an elected mayor (and near universally rejected the idea) with the alternative being the 'leader and cabinet' model where the leader of the controlling group appointed a few councillors to be the cabinet - no more than ten the rules said - leaving the remaining councillors scrabbling about doing little or nothing.

The Blair Revolution's idea was that local councils would mirror parliament with backbench councillors sitting on scrutiny committees (designed to ape Parliament's Select Committee system) that would hold the leader and cabinet to account. These committees, the government decided, would be independent - by which they meant not subject to a political party whip - and would be able to call in decisions and propose changes, even send the decision for consideration by the (whipped) full council.

It all sounded really exciting at the time, some councils (Bradford was one) even jumped the legislative gun and introduced scrutiny committees before being required to do so. The old committee system would be swept away. its fat bundles of papers, pre-briefings and meetings that lasted 15 minutes cast into history's waste paper bin. A national organisation, the Centre for Public Scrutiny, produced a set of guiding principles for scrutiny:

  • provide constructive “critical friend” challenge;
  • amplify the voice and concerns of the public
  • be led by independent people who take responsibility for their role
  • drive improvement in public services.

The new system would be fit for the modern age - streamlined, effective, transparent and public-facing. Yet somehow it never seemed that way. I chaired Bradford's first education scrutiny panel at a time when the Council was introducing a major reorganisation of schools (scrapping a three-tier system for the more commonplace two-tier system of primary and secondary). Officers, right up to the chief executive, told me I wasn't allowed to require the new education portfolio holder to attend and answer questions (she did eventually come) and nor would the leader and that chief executive come. The relatively junior scrutiny officers were put under huge pressure not to allow me to do a 'single issue' meeting just on reorganisation and I was presented with a long list of other topics that simply had to go on my agenda.

The meetings themselves were a strange affair. For much of the time they consisted of me asking officers questions supported by the liberal democrat on the committee while the five Labour members sat there like cartoon Yorkshiremen, “Ear all, see all, say nowt; Eyt all, sup all, pay nowt." Matters improved once the torturous process of appointing faith school and teacher members but the Council's corporate view remained that I should scrutinise the things that the Council wanted me to scrutinise - "it's all about driving improvement", I'd be told - rather than the things I felt the public would want me to examine.

Nothing much had changed when a decade later I returned as a scrutiny chair for adult social care - I wanted to look at (how topical) excess winter deaths but was told this wasn't for me but the health scrutiny committee. There was a constant battle between my desire to look at things that mattered - bed blocking, care home fee structures, continuing care - and the Council's preference for a long agenda of individual matters going through the authority's decision-making processes. I still, however, found myself in the position where many of the councillors barely contributed to the meeting (and would start huffling and shuffling if the end of the meeting crept passed the kick-off at Bradford City or the start of some far more important party meeting somewhere else in the City).

The reality, at least in my experience, is that scrutiny is seen as unimportant (the local press only once attended my adult care scrutiny) with the chair roles often used as de facto sinecures - a little paid job in the gift of the party that could reward a supporter or buy off an independent or minor party leader. The financial pressure on local councils has resulted in less and less officer support for scrutiny, in the merging and closing of scrutiny committees, and in the whittling down of membership to a bare minimum. Bradford's seven committees and now four (soon to be three) meaning that there's no real time to consider much of substance, especially given the increase in process aspects of these meetings ("full council has said that all procurement decisions over £350,000 should go to scrutiny").

Bad chairs, poorly managed agendas, reducing officer support - all these make for scrutiny being less effective. There is, however, a more fundamental problem - scrutiny acts to reduce effective opposition by reducing the spaces where the decision-makers on a council are questioned and challenged by their political opponents. Indeed much of scrutiny, especially where a controlling group controls the chairs, never questions the decision-makers but focuses on responding to reports prepared and presented by officers. Add to this the (understandable) reluctance of Council press officers to issue statements or releases from scrutiny chairs that might challenge the political leadership.

As we move to a new era of sub-regional mayors and combined authorities with doubtful levels of accountability (who scrutinises the LEPs, for example), we need to ask what model is best for the vital task of questioning and challenging those decision-makers? The scrutiny chair at the sub-regional level is another appointment brokered between authority leaders and the membership is either unpaid (meaning too often councillors don't give it due attention - or even turn up) or represents another de facto sinecure used to reward members.

The current system doesn't enable good scrutiny (which doesn't mean no good scrutiny takes place, just that it's rare) and means too many decisions are made poorly, too little time is spent looking at the outcomes of those decisions, and very little attention is given to accountability which should be a central tenet of a democracy. If we are to move towards the direct election of leaders and mayors, this should be matched by an adequate system of accountabiity, something not served by the current structures for scrutiny. Even if we remain with councillors elected as at present, we need to think about how the small number of councillors who make decisions can be held more properly to account for those decisions. For all its faults the old committee system did mean councillors made decisions in a contested environment, in public and open to question. The current system sees decisions made by unchallenged cabinets faced by poorly resourced and badly led scrutiny with the result that too many poor decisions get made.

Reforming local government should start here - with accountability, scrutiny and challenge - rather than with grandiose debates about geography and leadership. We are moving towards a situation where the latter (new boundaries, mayors, unitaries) come ahead of the pipework of democracy - scrutiny and accountability.


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Local government is about local services - and it should be local

There’s a tendency for us to view political geography through a prism of our prejudices and preferences rather than to try and have that geography reflect what works best for the people whose geography we are messing about with. I remember once witnessing an MP setting out an entire reworking of Yorkshire’s parliamentary constituencies based entirely on making his marginal seat into a safe seat.

This is what we see from the devolution proposals drawn up by the Centre for Cities, a comprehensive reorganisation determined entirely by “functional geographic areas”:

Local government boundaries will match local economic boundaries — they will always be blurry, but the aim should be to contain as much of the local economy within the local authority area as possible — that is the area over which most people locally work and live their lives

At the heart of these proposals are a set of what Centre for Cities call “Mayoral Combined Authorities”, huge lumps of political geography based on the large conurbations. These monsters will, as the name suggests, have a directly elected mayor overseeing ‘powers’ like those currently enjoyed by the Mayor of London (or ‘not very many powers really’). Alongside these big new authorities comes the abolition of district councils, sweeping aside the tier of local government to which people have the closest relationship in favour of a series of unitary councils with a minimum population of 300,000 people.

The starting point here is that the only relationship between people and government is a narrowly defined (“where do people work”) understanding of the economy. We’re told that “…half of people in cities live and work in different local authorities, and 20 per cent of people in small towns commute into neighbouring cities and large towns for work…” without answering the related question: why does this matter?

Local government is not about managing local economies, it probably shouldn’t be about spatial or town planning, but rather about a set of well-defined and understood services delivered to local people. At the heart of this is, what we used to call in local government management speak, visible services. Things like emptying the bins, sweeping the streets, fixing potholes, planting the flowerbeds round the war memorial, and looking after the children’s playground. I know this all sounds really dull to grand folk in fine London offices, but such services are the basis of good local government everywhere. And delivering them doesn’t require an elected mayor or a huge authority covering a million or more people.

There’s a drive to create new unitary councils through local agreement. It’s not about getting better local government but rather about either trying to fix the funding problems in top tier councils or else chasing new devolution proposals that amount to little more than dollops of central government cash for transport schemes, subsidising office development or training 18 year olds.

Local government in England has a financial crisis brought about by central government refusing to fund social services adequately while, at the same time, stopping local councils raising the money through their own taxation powers. And this financial crisis is at its most acute in county councils where spending on social services to children and adults represents two-thirds and more of total spending.

You wouldn’t get to this truth by reading the Centre for Cities proposals for reorganisation. The proposals talk about handing over business rates to local councils and, in a roundabout way, dropping the cap on council tax increases but say nothing at all about the functions of local government. There’s no attempt at all to consider managing waste collection and disposal, public footpaths or looking after parks let alone public loos or providing dog poo bins. The Centre for Cities seem to think local government is all about ‘functional economic units’ and levelling up the economy and nothing to do with providing a set of services to people in a given locality. And these services matter to people – in 24 years as a local councillor very few residents contacted me about economic development, but plenty did about dog muck, potholes and trees.

It seems that the Centre for Cities has designed proposals that reflect its interests not proposals that reflect the interests of the people living in England’s towns, cities and suburbs. There is no hue and cry from the public for reorganising local government into tidy unitary authorities and, after years of listening to people in Keighley complain about getting lumped into Bradford, I’m also sure that if anyone at the genuinely local level is thinking about reorganisation it will be to oppose creating bigger, more distant and less responsive local councils.


Wednesday, 9 September 2020

What are cities for?


Le Corbusier - the wrong vision of cities

Karl Sharro is an architect who I follow on Twitter mostly for his jokes and interesting comments about the middle east. Today he put up a brilliant Twitter thread about the future of cities that is worth your reading. Hopefully this link to it will work.

Karl talks about how the debate around cities has swung round from "cities are great, cities are the future" to "cities are the problem, we need less city". He observes:
It was a fantasy sold on appealing images of healthy people sipping coffee in city squares, but its obsession with a narrow definition of urban life within historic centres with elegantly designed new apartment blocks ignored what real urban life was like to the majority.
The city is not its tight dense core but a much bigger suburban and exurban entity - not simply Metro Paris but the whole of the Ile de France. Karl looks at examples of polycentric urban areas - the Ruhr and the M11 corridor from London to Cambridge - and suggests that cities are better seen in this context rather than just their historic core.

At the heart of all this is answering the question Karl poses - "what are cities for?" We thought we had an answer, at least an economic one, in agglomeration theory but the validity of this is undermined by technology and we need instead to look at an answer built around consumption - cities provide great amenity to residents than non-cities. Reaching this conclusion may lead some towards that London or Paris monocentric model but it could equally reflect polycentric places like Los Angeles, The Ruhr or even dear old West Yorkshire.

Heroic and dictatorial - welcome to West Yorkshire's potty transport strategy

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has some plans for the future of transport that are, in the words of one councillor, either heroic or potty. At the core of the proposals is the now familiar anti-car line we see in almost every piece of transport planning. WYCA has especially heroic plans:
As part of that scheme the Authority has set some eye catching targets, including reducing car journeys by 21 per cent, increasing walking by 78 per cent and increasing cycling by a huge 2,000 per cent.
The Authority has decided, in the words of another councillor, to be "dictatorial" (that councillor says he is a liberal too) about this by insisting that "...all transport projects would have to include details of how they would improve the environment." Forget about making the economy stronger. Who cares about increasing access or mobility for the old or the poor. If it doesn't reduce the carbon footprint it doesn't get done.

For years there has been a presumption within transport planning that private transport is bad and public transport is good. Using your own vehicle to pootle about is seen as somehow selfish and inconsiderate whereas getting an inconvenient bus or train to an equally inconvenient location was the acme of good transport. Across the nation (indeed across the world) we poured billions into new networks designed to achieve that model shift, to stop people from using cars. What was the outcome of all this lavish infrastructure? More cars, more car journeys.

Those heroic councillors in West Yorkshire might have missed the reason for this failure in pushing through their new plans. People like cars, they like the flexibility and convenience of having access to a transport system that takes them from where they are now to where they want to be and does so in the dry and carrying all the necessary babies, bags and boxes. There is no point at which a train or a bus will provide such a system. Even bicycles or walking, for all that they do go point-to-point, don't give the same scope as a car. Which means that cars must be part of future transport planning.

As we peer into the transport future, we can see looming in its mists, several big changes. The biggest is the advent of autonomous systems that offer a very different future for the car than that assumed by WYCA's tranport plans. But, when that Authority looks at the future, it explicitly excludes private autonomous vehicles from its planning. Every transport plan being drawn up right now, regardless of the political colour of the authority, takes an anti-car position. With the proposed 'decarbonising' of cars over the next fifteen years or so, the imperative to reduce car travel for environmental reason is reduced and autonomous systems should also deliver a step change in road safety - the two primary reasons for wanting fewer cars no longer apply. So why are we so fixated on reducing car travel?

Another big change, something the last few months have accelerated, is a reduction in the need for people to travel. We've seen how working from home has increased and some of this will become permanent but we've also had a rise in home shopping reducing the need to travel for shopping. We still don't know the extent to which these changes will remain but it is reasonable to expect that essential travel will reduce. This creates a real problem for public transport networks that already operate at low levels of financial viability, something exacerbated by the reluctance to use transport investment on removing the most expensive element of these system's operations - the drivers. No transport plan I have seen looks at how, for example, currently non-viable rural bus networks become viable if the need to provide a driver is removed.

And then we have the opportunity - again ignored in WYCA's plans - of moving to three-dimensional networks by accessing low altitude air travel. The Authority spends time nagging about air travel (like cars, planes are seen as an irredeemable evil - at least until the councillor wants to take her annual holiday on a Greek island) but specifically excludes shifting to a 3D system. Again there's no reason why deliveries, taxis and even private travel might take advantage of currently underused low altitude air transport. There are regulatory concerns and perhaps some safety questions but we are missing opportunities by refusing to even consider the options 3D brings.

I don't lay claim to knowing the answers to problems with transport but I do think our current planners are making the same mistakes as their predecessors - too much focus on trains, trying to exclude cars rather than make cars better, and producing plans for today's problems without considering whether those problems will exist by the time the new infrastructure or systems are built. On top of this, the WYCA, like other authorities, has added an absolutist mantra on the environment that does not reflect either the scientific consensus or the needs and expectations of the travelling public. The result of this will be a transport strategy and billions in infrastructure investment that, at best, will add no value to travel systems and, at worst, will actively destroy economic value to the detriment of the public and the environment.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Thoughts on Bradford's culture (and why, as it stands, we won't be 2025 City of Culture)

 Bradford's culture could be this...

Or Bradford's culture could be this...

What it isn't is this...

I want, as Mary Dowson the bid chair says, to feel that me and my neighbours are, in some way, part of the Bradford’s bid to be City ofCulture in 2025. And for this sentiment is felt by lots of other people from across the city. Yet when I look at the material and the presentation so far for the city’s bid, I feel underwhelmed.

We’ve always argued that Bradford has a better cultural infrastructure than Leeds – from theatre and museums through to community-based arts we punch above our weight and this could form the basis for a successful celebration of culture in the city. The problem is that, when you look at the message coming out from Bradford 2025 there’s nothing at all that hints at any uniqueness for the city. Even worse the idea seems to be that the reason for celebrating culture is primarily economic. The home page for Bradford’s bid pretty much starts with this:

The UK City of Culture title has had a transformational impact on previous host cities, securing millions of pounds of investment and acting as a catalyst for creative place-making and culture-led regeneration.

The home page then goes on to list all the great organisations already operating within the arts sector within Bradford. Tell me, is this what we really mean by culture? The list is dominated by organisations that barely register for most residents, a set of events and activities that appeal to a narrow audience and can’t be said to represent, in any substantive way, Bradford’s culture. Even worse there seems to be a repeat of past mistakes as we focus on elite arts and a sort of muddled, rose-coloured portrayal of Bradford’s heritage (except for stuff like brass bands and choirs which seem to have been missed).

What’s unique about Bradford? What sets the city apart from its competitors in this bid? Is it simply that we have X or Y institution, or should we be looking beyond the list of local arts great and good presented so far by the bid? Is the profile of those involved just too predictably middle class and probably too white? Are the small numbers of arts professionals the material seems to stress truly representative of Bradford’s culture?

Bradford has Britain’s biggest Kashmiri community making up between a quarter and a third of the population. Yet we don’t hear the words ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Muslim’, let alone ‘Kashmiri’, ‘Punjabi’ or ‘Mirpuri’ any where in the bid material. The leading faces are two middle class, white women and a middle class, white man. It’s not that these people can’t represent the city but that there seems to be no sense that, in developing the bid, we’ve explored the culture of the city’s biggest communities. We’re told that Bradford has a young population but get no sense of these young people’s cultural lives.

When I look into Bradford, my first cultural impression isn’t theatre or dance or even the listings for concert halls. Instead I see cars, cricket and desi grills, fancy puddings and sharp haircuts. Dig a little further and you’ll get the ubiquitous influence of Islam, not just the realities of its worship but the symbols, sayings and styles Muslims brought to Britain from Kashmir, imported from Saudi Arabia and mixed with stone and rain to make for a uniquely Bradford feel. Bradford is the centre of British Muslim culture – this, far more than stone buildings and a national museum, is the City’s uniqueness.

If we produce a bid that simply ticks the box of diversity without seeming to feel the reality of Bradford, then it deserves to lose. Using Bradford to signal that being brown and Muslim is as much a part of today’s British culture would not only be strong and positive but would set Bradford’s offer apart from the other places bidding to be City of Culture. Right now, nothing the Bradford bid offers looks any different, beyond the images of places, from any other bidder – the same boosterism, the same middle class white women talking about the vital importance of culture, the same platitudes and presumptions that a list of organisations and a bunch of celebrity endorsements is all that constitutes culture in a city of half-a-million people.

Preparing a bid like this should be an opportunity to get under Bradford’s skin, to appreciate things like young Asian’s obsession withcars and to find out about the real Bradford curry. Then maybe, for a break from all that Asian and Muslim culture, try some bassline from the likes of the Bad Boy Chiller Crew. There’s so much – I’d say most - of Bradford’s culture that takes place outside the “arts sector” and if we’re serious about putting culture bang at the centre of the city’s future we should maybe lock those arts folk in a large room and take to the streets looking for our real culture.


Friday, 4 September 2020

Why planning permissions lapse (and how Shelter should be ashamed for opposing planning reforms)

The former Denholme Velvets site

The analysis by Shelter and the House Builders Federation shows that 40% of homes granted planning permission in England go unbuilt. This equates to more than 380,000 homes between 2011 and 2019.
Sadly Shelter's Director, Polly Neate, goes on to say that this finding proves how the problem isn't planning but rather that government isn't giving her friends in the social housing sector billions with which to build houses. And, yes, there's an argument to be had about funding for social housing, but for the UK's biggest and most influential housing charity to be opposing planning reform is both shocking and unforgivable.

More interesting though is to understand why so many planning permissions lapse. I'm sure the anti-capitaist mob will be quick to point at the big housebuilders but this really isn't the case. We know there's an issue with build-out rates on larger housing sites but it's nonsense to say that companies who exist to make money from building houses are going to let expensively obtained planning permissions lapse. So the problem lies elsewhere.

Let me give you a couple of examples of sites that obtained planning permission but it subsequently lapsed leaving the houses unbuilt and the sites empty. And in doing this perhaps we'll remember that this is just another example of how our land market is distorted by the planning system.

Cullingworth used to have a railway station but the line closed in the late 1950s and the land and sidings at the station were sold off. The Cullingworth land was bought by a man called Billy Webb who proceeded to run his chicken slaughterhouse and pet food businesses from the land. In the 1990s the pet food business closed and the chicken factory was sold off leaving redundant buildings on the site of the old sidings. Eventually, the site was cleared and planning was sought and given for the development of 80 or so houses plus a care home. The applicant wasn't a developer and had no intention of building these houses - all they sought was a permission so as to make the site more attractive to a buyer. No buyer came forward (maybe the new owners wanted too much money) and the permission lapsed. And, of course, under the planning system that Shelter's director thinks isn't a problem, there's no guarantee that a new application will be granted permission.

This brings me to a second example. The A629 Keighley to Halifax road passes through the village of Denholme and, as you head out across the high moor from that village there's a site that used to be a textile mill owned by a company called Denholme Velvets. When the mill closed it's owners applied for permission to demolish the buildings and build some houses. This permission was granted, the owners demolished the mill, took away the valuable Yorkshire stone, and looked for a buyer. This was around the time of the financial crash so, surprise surprise, no buyer came forward, the site remained a derelict mess and the planning permission lapsed.

The mill site is in the green belt meaning that when Yorkshire Housing (one of those social housing companies Polly Neate likes) applied to build some affordable housing on the cleared space where the mill once was, they were refused - by the council, on appeal, and in a subsequent amended application. The refusal was because the new housing would spoil the openness of the green belt. The land (it's the picture at the head of this post) sits there growing buddleia and fire weed among piles of rubble while we're told there's a shortage of affordable housing.

Around Bradford you'll find dozens of sites with a similar history - old industrial land cleared of it's valuable stone and left to grow weeds because either the owner wants too much money or else building houses is simply not viable give expectations about decontamination, services and highways. I know of one social housing developer who, having built a mixed tenure estate in inner city Bradford, found that the market housing part of the development wouldn't sell. Despite zero land costs (the social housing company owned the land), the cost of building a family home was higher than similarly sized or even bigger homes in the area were priced on the market. Those homes are now rented out.

Time and time again assorted NIMBYs tell us that we should build on these 'brownfield' sites before a single turf of their precious green fields is dug. And shamefully, people like Polly Neate, indulge such NIMBYs by promising that houses for poor people would be built on these brownfield sites using lots of lovely government cash. The poor people don't get to live in nice suburban communities with good schools and great local amenities, just as before they get dumped in poorly serviced, over-dense inner city estates away from the nice places where the NIMBYs (and probably the executives of big charities like Shelter) live.


Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Three acres and a cow is still a recipe for poverty not 'radical agrarian populism'


Each generation rediscovers agrarian revolution as “…a genuine revolutionary moment in British politics.” This rejection of urban life, an attachment to a sort of bucolic, rose-spectacled agrarian ideal is captured in the latest, post-Brexit version by Aris Roussinos - “…a radical agrarian populism is developing among a network of thoughtful smallholder-writers which seeks to utterly transform Britain’s relationship with the land, and with the food we eat.”

This idolising of an agrarian, peasant society – three acres and a cow as Eli Hamshire wrote to 19th century land reformer and MP (and urban industrialist), Jesse Collings – traces its roots back into ancient times where the nobility of the smallholding subsistence farmer is held up as a social ideal.

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds. As long, therefore, as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans, or anything else.”

Thomas Jefferson there presenting his idealistic views on the (presumably slave-owning) agrarian world he wanted to see in the new America. This didn’t come to pass because subsistence agriculture, even in a slave-owning society, is a dead end. People walked away from the land because the reality, that thing Jesse Collings brought down the government over in 1886, was that working on the land, peasant farming, is the meanest and poorest livelihood. We’ve forgotten that poverty is often far worse, and still is today, in places dominated by bare subsistence and marginal agriculture.

This doesn’t stop a new set of reactionary intellectuals embracing ‘back to the land’, that ‘radical agrarian populism’ as a desirable political end rather than a repeated romantic delusion.

“…as a result of the collapse of the neoliberal economic model and a growing awareness of the looming threat of environmental disaster “a contemporary agrarian movement has arisen which has a lot in common with the agrarian populist and neo-populist movements of a century ago, emphasising self-reliant, low impact, low energy, land-based lifestyles, a fair distribution of resources, greater political autonomy and so on.”

Leaving aside that the collapsing neoliberal model is another one of those romantic delusions, it’s hard to see how promoting a low technology, peasant farming future is either sensible or remotely populist. What these new back to the land campaigners want is to recruit a million new farmers from people “…who are currently driving taxis or checking income tax or working in call centres, if they have a job at all.” Presumably, each to be given threeacres and a cow with which they will create “…widely-dispersed networks of small producers.”

What the proponents of this new peasantry (many of them, while claiming to be some sort of farmer, are more sustained by writing or academia than agriculture) seem to believe is that we can replace a mostly efficient, if over-protected, agriculture with what amounts to little more than a million people running allotments. Worse still our agrarian radicals step back into the single most discredited idea in economics and social science – protectionism and autarky:

“…all nations should strive for self-reliance in food — at least producing enough of the basics to get by on — and exporting food only when the home population is well fed, and importing only what is truly desirable and cannot reasonably be grown at home.”

Two hundred years of enlightenment snuffed out by a deluded and romantic idea of self-sufficiency. Everywhere else in the world, and through history, “…producing enough of the basics to get by on…” is known as bare subsistence. It’s just about tolerable until the harvest fails. Saying peasant farming is, in any way, a sustainable response to (another romantic and oft-repeated myth) “…capitalism in its final crisis…” strikes me as an argument more worthy of the Khmer Rouge than any sort of conservative. And it doesn’t matter how many folk festivals you organise to celebrate this agrarian populism, it remains merely trying to move poor people from one form of precarious existence to another – turning an Uber-driver into a smallholder doesn’t represent a response to neoliberalism's (fictional) collapse but is just a return to the mythic romanticism of Jefferson, Cobbett, Borsodi and Snyder.

Through most of history subsistence agriculture has been incredibly hard, back-breaking work done by people with little choice and characterised more by poverty, famine, disease, and death than by sturdy, noble, horny-handed sons of toil. It isn’t a failure of British agriculture that it employs less than 2% of the workforce, this is a success because it means the way we do what agriculture does – feed the population – is more efficient and effective than in the times when most of the population slaved away in mostly subsistence poverty.

This supposed agrarian populism is nothing of the sort, there is no demand for, no need for and no economic justification for making millions of workers return to the land. This isn’t the recipe for some sort of post-capitalist Elysium but simply a return to the pain, suffering and exploitation from which we were released by free markets and free trade. Giving every man three acres and a cow may sound revolutionary and make for good songs but, in truth, it’s either trying to turn allotment gardening into farming or else the sort of year zero that leads to the dead end of food shortages, poverty and economic suffering.